Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Instructional Time Matters

But time keeps flowing like a river (on and on)

To the sea, to the sea
’til it's gone forever…

At least that’s what the Alan Parsons Project suggested in their hit song. But poets and songwriters aren’t the only ones seemingly consumed by the passage of time. Educators frequently talk about the concept, discussing “time-on-task,” school start and end times, and the length of the school year. What’s behind this preoccupation with instructional time? Does it matter if the school day is interrupted for pep rallies, award assemblies, announcements from the office, and the like? Isn’t the school calendar that revolves around the needs of an agrarian culture adequate for today’s students? Why does nearly every conversation with teachers end up being a discussion of time and the lack of it in classrooms?

Teachers have sound reasons for being concerned about time. More than 100 years of research suggests a significant correlation between time spent learning and the amount of learning that results. As memory expert Alan Baddeley describes it, “In short, as far as learning is concerned, you get what you pay for.”1 The relationship between this research finding and teaching may seem obvious, but let’s dive deeper into the research and its implications.
Researchers originally connected expertise in playing the violin with the amount of time spent in individual practice. They found that experts spent more than 10,000 hours practicing, while lesser experts spent about 7500 hours practicing, accomplished experts spent around 5000 hours practicing, and committed amateurs spent around 1500 hours practicing. While the numbers fluctuate slightly, the general range has remained surprisingly consistent as researchers examined expertise levels in other disciplines.2

What does this have to do with teaching? Probably more than we realize. For example, every school system I’ve encountered has significant literacy goals for students. Most schools would like to produce expert, or at least lesser expert or accomplished, readers. According to the research, developing such readers requires at least 5000 hours of practice—5000+ hours that students focus on applying and developing their reading capacity. With that in mind, let’s examine a possible scenario. If a child spends one hour each day for 175 days of the school year from grades one through eight, she will have invested approximately 1400 hours in developing reading expertise—not even enough for “committed amateur” levels! What if we add kindergarten and high school? The student still comes up woefully short at 2275 hours—not even halfway to accomplished levels.

No, this doesn’t include the time a child may spend reading at home, but it would be a rare child who actually spends the extra 2300+ hours needed to achieve “accomplished expert” levels. And to make the situation more challenging, recent research on the amount of time students actually spend reading in school classrooms ranges from a low of seven minutes to a high of 23 minutes.3 (Note that the research focuses on time spent practicingrecalling and applying skills—not on the amount of time the teacher presents information.)

Admittedly, we are not attempting to produce readers for the stage at Carnegie Hall, but this research on time and learning should not be dismissed. Time spent learning does matter for a student’s achievement. We’ve only explored this connection to developing literacy capacity, but the same would be true if applied to other disciplines. Want to develop expert mathematicians (or at least “committed amateur” mathematicians)? Time matters. Want to develop accomplished scientists (or, again, at least “committed amateur” scientists)? Time matters. The time a child spends recalling and applying learning correlates with the child’s level of expertise. When it comes to learning, time invested in recalling and applying relates to ability and achievement.

In conclusion, here are some questions to consider:
  • What are our priorities? In what areas of the curriculum are we attempting to develop more than amateur capacity? In what areas of the curriculum are we striving for more than amateur achievement?
  • How does our time (both given and devoted) reflect those priorities?
  • What is needed to increase the time students choose to spend in recall and application of new learning?
  • What are the implications of this research for our own professional development?
Share your thoughts and insights!


  1. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), p. 70-78.
  2. Ibid.
  3. In-School Independent Reading.


Anonymous said...

You and I know that time spent on practice is really the only thing that matters. My uncle's college painting teacher said it best, at my uncle's graduation. "You know everything there is to know about painting. You know about composition, and color, and using oil and watercolor, knife and palette and brush. You know everything." She patted him on the shoulder. "Now you just need twenty years of practice to be the best painter in the world."

Reading, writing, mathematics, art, dance, music, song, sport, game, teamwork, language, speaking, design. These should be the basis of any and all education, with practice as the underlying and overall emphasis at every level. "If this is what you want to do, practice."

takefive said...

Tomorrow I am suppose to share the insights that have allowed my students to score at the top of the district in computation. Honestly I have no tricks to share...everyone knows the things I use.

My biggest weapon is that my school figured a way to give me an extra math class period with students every other day. That means one week students have 2 extra math classes and the next week they have 3 extra math classes. Granted we don't teach them exactly as we do the daily math class...we use more games, drive the class from formative assessments, use fluid flexible grouping to get kids to the right level for instruction and it's very informal.

I have no tricks to share. I'd have to say that it's the extra practice and time.